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Cuisine of Tropical Malaysia – a Truly Asian Inspiration

May 5, 2015
Country/Region:  Malaysia
Category:  Cuisine

If there would be a ranking of countries most tempting to visit by a foodie, which countries would make it there? Italy with fresh pasta, France with its array of cheeses, or boosting with freshness Greece? This would be probably the answer of someone who lives in Europe. But if you looked more broad, and asked people in Asia? Malaysia and Thailand would definitely make it to the top. Believe it or not, but Malaysia is so famous for its delicious cuisine that both locals and foreigners come here purely to taste food. No sightseeing, no beach relax – only food. Food trips are so common, that even travel agencies are offering them, especially in Penang and Kuala Lumpur.

So what’s the reason people love the cuisine here so much? To me, the answer is the diversity. As weird as it may sound, Malaysia’s national cuisine consists of cuisine of 3 different cultures: Malay, Chinese and Indian. They are all very different, but each of them provides strong flavor, kick of spices and tropical ingredients, like coconut milk, Asian herbs and a lot of rice. And then there’s the eating process, which is extremely fun, since you need to be able to eat with any cutlery – chopsticks, spoon and fork (knife is not used in Malaysia as a cutlery) and even bare hands. Here are some of the most delicious dishes you can find in Malaysia:


Nasi lemak – version with fried egg. In the cups there’s traditional Malaysian milk tea – the Tarik, and chocolate drink - Milo
Nasi lemak – version with fried egg. In the cups there’s traditional Malaysian milk tea – the Tarik, and chocolate drink - Milo

Nasi Lemak

Malay dish showing the true essence of Malaysia. There’s the staple – rice, which is cooked in coconut milk, with ginger and pandan leaf or lemongrass. Accompanying the rice there are the condiments – crunchy dried anchovies (ikan bilis), fresh slices of cucumber, peanuts, hard boiled egg and fiercy red sauce – sambal. This is the basic version, which is often packed in banana leaves and comes as a fist-size packet which you can just grab from any kiosk, café or restaurant. More rich versions include a piece of deep-fried or curry chicken, or fried squid, and is then served on a plate, rather than on banana leaf. The basic version costs only 0.25 USD!

Original laksa from Penang. It might not look so beautiful, but it’s delicious!
Original laksa from Penang. It might not look so beautiful, but it’s delicious!

Laksa

It’s a type of soup, originally from Malaysia, but it has tens of local variations. Each region has its own staple laksa, which is typical for each region or city. What they all have in common is a base – rice noodles, coconut milk, curry soup base and tamarind, which gives the soup the slightly sour feel. Depending on the region, you can find shimps, pineapple cubes, shredded cucumber and other ingredients in your laksa. Laksa was even awarded 7th out of the 50 most delicious food in the world by CNN Travel – and no wonder, it’s so delicious, that one bowl is never enough! You can get a bowl for 1.5 USD.

Banana leaf rice
Banana leaf rice

Banana Leaf Rice

It’s a fulfilling meal originally from southern India (Kerala and Tamil Nadu). It’s best to eat it only when you feel really hungry – since according to tradition, any refill on your plate will be free! What’s more, you don’t even have to ask for it – the minute the waiter spots that you finished one of the dishes or rice, he’ll come and put more on your plate. So make sure if you don’t want to eat more, to make it very clear to the restaurant staff! How does it look like? Just as the name says, instead of a plate, you’ll be dining on a real banana leaf. The server will bring you rice first, and then an array of vegetables, pickles and curries. My favourite is the crab curry, with slightly fishy aroma and absolutely spicy addition of chilli peppers, as well as mango chutney – perfect combo of sweet and spicy! So the main set on the leaf will be vegetarian, but if you need more proteins, you can order tandoori chicken baked in the oven, or fried fish.

Traditionally you should eat banana leaf rice with your hands, or rather only your right hand, since the left hand is considered unclean and should not touch the food. Simply take some rice in your hand, add some veggies and dip it in the curry. Then use your thumb to push it in your mouth. It’s not easy at first, but banana leaf rices tastes so much better eaten with hands than cutlery! When you finish your meal, fold the leaf in half. Fold it in your direction, If you enjoyed the food, or in the opposite side, if you didn’t. It’s a way of giving feedback to the staff.

My yee sang on Chinese New Year 2015.
My yee sang on Chinese New Year 2015.

Yee Sang

Chinese-Malaysian dish, eaten for Chinese New Year. It literally means the prosperity toss, and this is exactly what you will be doing with it –tossing it well! It’s a very complex raw fish salad – it consists of raw smoked salmon, shredded vegetables (white raddish, pickled ginger, Chinese parsley), shredded jellyfish, rice crispy treats, peanuts, shrimp crackers and other condiments, tossed with a sweet sauce (usually a plum sauce). Yee Sang is easily available in stores, but some of the families prefer to make it by themselves. But whichever way you choose, the serving style is always the same – in a big, nice decorated plate or bowl. The whole family gathers around it with chopsticks and on a given signal, everyone starts to toss the ingredients with chopsticks, while saying loud best wishes for the New Year. After the salad is tossed, everyone eats – traditionally, you have to finish the whole serving, and you’ll be blessed in New Year.

Malaysia has a lot to offer and food is definitely one of the best reasons to visit it. Just to mention the city of Penang was chosen number 1 Foodie destination in 2014 by Lonely Planet. If you’re a fan of exotic flavor, cheap street food and the aroma of coconut milk – Malaysia is definitely a must-visit!

Check Zuza's blog Zu in Asia!



About the Author

Zuzanna Chmielewska

Zuzanna Chmielewska

Zuzanna is a Polish blogger, marketer, youth trainer, tour guide and fan of everything Asian. Author of the first Polish-language blog about Malaysia Zu in Asia and author of first printed Polish travel guide about Malaysia. Based in Kuala Lumpur and travelling around South-East Asia.